Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Foraging for food....

About a third of this year's crabapples
As a kid, my sister and brothers and I spent countless hours - often with our parents - gathering what people are suddenly, and rather glamourously, terming 'wild food'. When I was a kid, if we called it anything, it was called foraging, or, if we were looking for something specific, would be called after the item in question, with 'ing' on the end.  'Mushrooming', 'blackberrying' and 'bilberrying' loomed large in my childhood as outdoor pursuits - well, this is what my siblings and I used to say, though doubtless my parents would be horrified to see what I am doing to the English language here!  

We would also pick chestnuts in season to roast on our very eco-unfriendly coal fire, and we would look for cob nuts in the woods opposite our house, but the squirrels always seemed to get the lot. I even remember crab fishing off Skarfskerry pier near John o'Groats when we went on holiday, and taking them home in a bucket of seawater for my Nana to cook for lunch the next day.  I think this must have been a rare success, as I also distinctly recall failing to catch anything on a number of occasions!
Homemade jam and jelly

I was never a fan of mushrooms, to the absolute bewilderment of my dad and sister.  Dad was so fascinated by fungi that he would keep an eye out on every country walk, and when something interesting - or edible - was due to sprout, we would all cram into the car to find likely spots.  As I didn't really get much out of eating the spoils, I learned to get the enjoyment in spotting the mushrooms and toadstools themselves.  To this day, I still surprise (or perhaps bore!) walking companions by suddenly saying 'Look at that bracket fungus!' or 'I think this is a ceps!' to which the response is usually 'where?!'  Even now, I can't help but take photos of interesting examples I come 

This passion for picking wild fruits and nuts is still with me.  Last year, with its late spring and long hot summer, followed by a moderately wet, warm autumn as the fruits were ripening was especially good for crabapples, bilberries, and in the case of varieties that fruited before the rain came in, blackberries.  I even saw wild raspberries this year for the first time - the fruits were tiny and full of seeds, but had a delicious, fragrant and less sweet taste than I am used to.
This batch of crabapple jelly had a gorgeous ruby hue

I was lucky enough to pick several pounds of crabapples - three varieties - from round the rugby field where we like to walk the dogs, although I was glad we are both tall, as someone had the lower ones before I got there! I turned these into three types of jelly; crabapple, crabapple cider and crabapple, red wine and bramble jelly.  I think I got about six or seven pounds of jelly in the end.  If you can blag some jam jars from friends or family, this delicious, slightly sharp jelly is so, so cheap to make - it is simply the cost of the water, the electric or gas to boil out the juice and sterilise the jars, and the sugar (a 5kg bag being about £3.50).  These little apples contain so much pectin that the jelly sets beautifully.  A posh jam making book will tell you to strain the juice through a muslin cloth, but I got fab results with an old cotton teatowel which had washed a bit thin over the years.

Freshly picked sloes - tiny but tasty
I also picked some sloes (a small, bitter relative of the plum which has a spiced flavour, great for making sour jellies to have with cheese) I used them to make sloe gin; even after a just a few months of steeping, this was way better than any commercial variety I have ever had.  This year wasn't ideal for sloes - the cold start to the year seemed to prevent many fruit from setting, so I only got enough for a litre of sloe gin.

I went blackberrying twice last autumn - once near where I live, and once near my parents' place.  Both due to the weather (it rained just as the local ones ripened, so many just mouldered on the vine) and the fact that folks in Bridgend seem to be much savvier blackberry pickers than in Newport, I got a much smaller haul locally.  I also feel a little disloyal saying this, but the blackberries picked in Newport also tasted better.  They are a particularly good variety - large, firm and juicy, with a wonderful flavour for eating fresh or in pies, cakes or jams.  I made most my part of the haul into jam - again, inexpensive as it only cost the price of the sugar and the pectin - around £2-3 for 8 jars of jam.  Friends and colleagues have learned that if they save their jars, they get paid in jam, so I have a massive collection in my understair cupboard!

My favourite forage this year was on a hill my family have been going to for years, overlooking the Bristol channel.  On a clear day, as this was, you can see the whole Severn estuary, with a view of Bristol sprawling into Avonmouth and the two bridges spanning the expanse of water and mudflats between England and Wales.  From a distance, with the sky soaring, these massive man-made structures give a false impression of fragility and seem strangely delicate in the vast space that surrounds them. 
Pounds and pounds of scrumptious berries!

Most of the family went, as well as Millie, and we had the biggest haul any of us could remember. This was mainly due to the conditions being perfect for ripening the berries, but perhaps partly because my brothers and I are now adults, so we pick faster - and, of course, don't eat half as we pick!!

We were picking a kind of wild blueberry which, where my parents and I are originally from, are called bilberries, but in this part of Wales are called wimberries. (They have yet another name in West Wales, I believe!)  This local variation in names is possibly why when we first moved to Wales and excitedly talked about bilberries, everyone looked at us blankly...

Bilberry plants, known as 'wires'
Our bumper haul of bilberries or wimberries was about 3 3/4 pounds - enough for my dad to make bilberry pie AND jam - which he was simply delighted about. I am still saving some of this jam, because it can be years between batches if the weather is not suitable.  

These little berries are so loved in some circles that I am told  greengrocers in Wales used to pay local kids to bring them down from the mountains in punnets during the long summer holidays.  Given how high they need to grow to really thrive, the incentive must have been good! Of course this is no longer a possibility in our world of supermarkets - so if you want them these days, you have to go and get them yourself.

I love finding these various gems in the hedgerows and byways - it makes me feel so much closer to nature and the elements - and to my parents and grandparents and their forebears who have passed on the knowledge of these simple, natural pleasures down through my family to me. 

Wishing you all the wild strawberries, garlic, blueberries, blackberries, sloes, damsons, raspberries, chestnuts, hazelnuts and crabapples you can find this year - and whatever else you like to eat besides!



  1. I love this post, so glad you can gather all these lovely things to make for your family. Here in Florida everything is not edible, if I go gathering I get poison ivy! Or bit by something nasty.
    Hugs to you,

    1. Hi Meredith - so glad you enjoyed reading it! We are indeed very lucky to be able to find so many tasty treats in the hedgerows... Bites and poison ivy would certainly take the fun out of any expedition!

      Hugs back, & thanks so much for stopping by and taking the trouble to comment.

      H xxx

  2. It's great that you can get out and about and do lots of 'berrying' - so much fun and such delightful makes from them too. Well done Hazel! Joy xo

    1. It really is fun, Joy! I just love fresh berries - and there's something wonderful
      about being outdoors picking them with friends or family. It's very rewarding :) xxx